Cedar Rapids (Fox Searchlight Pictures, R)

To these characters nothing is grosser than any hint of gayness, except possibly any hint of female sexuality, and it’s too bad that the jokes aimed at the audience are on the same developmental level.

I’m not sure what Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids was doing at Sundance—it’s an entirely predictable comedy about men who don’t want to grow up. It contains the expected quotient of raunchy humor and wish fulfillment and with nothing original to be found anywhere in the story, characters or cinematic technique. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of this particular conceit, perhaps because I am not, nor have I ever been, a teenage boy, but there seems to be a lot of money involved in creating fantasies flattering boy-men that they’re really better than the evil adult world and besides, they will miraculously get everything they want without ever having to grow up.
The fantastic nature of the world within which Cedar Rapids takes place is made so clear from the first that you might be tempted to argue that it’s a fable, an proposition which would be more convincing were the results sufficiently interesting to be differentiated from bad screenwriting. Our hero Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a successful small-town insurance agent (his company is named Brown Star, the first of many anal references). He has no problem driving a car or using a computer, but has never been on an airplane or had the least interest in the world outside the small Wisconsin hamlet where he was born. His psychic development apparently got stalled around the age of 12 and he still has an icky crush on his junior-high teacher (Sigourney Weaver), except that now he’s well past the age of consent and gets to bang her every week. Why she would bother with him is another question, one that Cedar Rapids fails to even consider because in the world of this film women only exist to service men (and yes, it fails the Bechdel test* in spades).
Then Tim has to attend an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa because the guy who was supposed to go killed himself in a little auto-asphyxiation episode (cue the titters). Tim finds himself rooming with the straight-laced Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) and the potty-mouthed Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) who join forces with fellow agent Joan Ostrowski-Fox (the very attractive Anne Heche—beautiful women attracted to dumpy guys is a requirement of the genre) to get Tim loosened up and out of his shell.
The world’s most oblivious prostitute (Alia Shawkat) also plays a role in the widening of Tim’s world while Kurtwood Smith plays the obligatory cranky school principal, oops, I mean head of the insurance organization, who the kids/insurance agents love to make fun of. Stephen Root plays Tim’s boss back home, and guess what: he has a wife and a daughter and the film goes out of its way to make them seem unattractive (the wife is picking her teeth the first time we see her, while the daughter is buried in makeup and significantly overweight), because they’re not part of Tim’s hero journey and therefore fair game for the camera’s scorn.
Much of the plot of Cedar Rapids plays like a low-rent version of Up in the Air: not only is the star wattage significantly lower (Ed Helms instead of George Clooney, Anne Heche instead of Vera Farmiga) but magical realism replaces the authentic crisis that forced Clooney’s character to re-examine his life. Cedar Rapids is a film in which you can do serious amounts of narcotics with no consequences, a house full of angry rednecks can easily be bluffed by a bad impersonation and prostitutes really do have hearts of gold. Accordingly, Tim’s transformation (hardly a spoiler; what else would happen in this type of movie?) is entirely unearned as is nearly everything else in Cedar Rapids, a choice that makes sense in terms of appealing to people who find the responsibilities of adulthood onerous. After all, when your baby mama loves you just because you’re you it’s quite reasonable to assume that the world exists entirely for the purpose of meeting your needs. Why such an attitude is supposed to be amusing in an adult character is a question for another day.
Cedar Rapids is not nearly as funny or insightful as it thinks it is, but I will say this for Phil Johnston’s script: it runs like clockwork right down to the crises which show up predictably at 30 and 60 minutes in. Seriously, you could set your watch by them. The best joke in the whole film is that Ronald is a fan of The Wire (in fact Isiah Whitlock Jr. is a regular on the series) while most of the rest of the so-called humor is just lame junior high school smuttiness. To these characters nothing is grosser than any hint of gayness, except possibly any hint of female sexuality, and it’s too bad that the jokes aimed at the audience (rather than used to exemplify the characters’ lameness) are on the same developmental level. Is there really something inherently funny about two naked guys in a locker room? Only if you’re a homophobe.
If you make it through Cedar Rapids you should definitely stay for the credits, because they include more laughs than the entire rest of the film and you also get to see our three male heroes quite contentedly regressed to their tree house days. Or maybe they’re just exemplifying what Leslie Fiedler argued was a salient theme in American literature** except that Fiedler never figured on a threesome. Anyway, they probably have a sign on the door of their rustic lodge that says “girls keep out” and if they don’t, they should. | Sarah Boslaugh
*The test: does the movie 1) have at least two women in it 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man? Cedar Rapids does have multiple female characters but they don’t talk to each other because in the world of the film they only exist in relation to the men. See http://www.feministfrequency.com/2009/12/the-bechdel-test-for-women-in-movies/.
**“Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey” argues that implied homoerotic relationships among pairs of men, who flee the domesticated world of women in favor of the wilderness, is a recurrent them in American literature.

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